Project History 
The birds-of-paradise are a family of birds that live only in New Guinea, a few surrounding islands, and a small part of adjacent Australia. The 39 species in the family are renowned for the brilliant colors and complex displays of the males—the result of sexual selection by females. Over the course of about 20 million years, these astounding animals evolved from a single ancestor that resembled a crow.

Birds-of-paradise have been known to Western science since Ferdinand Magellan's crew encountered them in the sixteenth century. Artists have painted them, collectors have traded skins, but few people have seen them alive in a natural setting. Their rugged, remote habitats and inaccessible display perches have made them all but impossible to photograph—until the Birds-of-Paradise Project.

In 2003, wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman was researching an assignment to photograph birds-of-paradise for National Geographic. He tracked down a University of Kansas graduate student named Ed Scholes, who was studying the Parotia genus of birds-of-paradise for his Ph.D. The two men joined forces for an expedition in 2004; they got along so well and the work proved so promising that they were soon planning the next.

By 2007, when Tim's National Geographic article went to press, they had already captured half of all birds-of-paradise species in images. It was both a tremendous achievement and a task they couldn't leave half-done. With funding from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic Expeditions Council, and Conservation International, they continued to plan and carry out expeditions into ever more remote parts of New Guinea. In 2011, Tim closed the shutter on the last species on the target list. It had taken them eight years; they had made 18 expeditions to 51 different field camps, climbed hundreds of trees, built dozens of blinds, recorded thousands of video and audio recordings, spent more than a year and a half of cumulative time in the field, and taken more than 39,000 photos.

But one of the great aspects of science is there's always more to learn. Near the end of the project, Ed and Tim realized that female birds-of-paradise often watch males from very specific viewpoints. To fully understand the displays ideally requires seeing what the female sees. An innovative camera set-up allowed them to film this viewpoint for the Wahnes's Parotia—so now Ed dreams of capturing the same viewpoint for the other 38 species. They are continuing to plan return expeditions.

For more on the Birds-of-Paradise Project: